In his second day on the job as prior of Florence, poet Dante Alighieri has no doubt that he can investigate the suspicious death of an architect in the middle of a great project.
Ambrogio, a master builder of the powerful builders’ guild, had been supervising the reconstruction of an old church rumored to be the site of Florence’s first studium, a center of higher learning. His body is found covered in quicklime in front of the mosaic he was in the process of personally completing. No one seems to know what the subject of this allegorical masterpiece was to be, nor exactly who is behind the studium. Dante discovers that seven masters of diverse disciplines, including philosophy, alchemy, poetry and navigation, have been meeting regularly in a tavern of a one-armed barkeeper, where a tattooed Eastern dancer named Antilia exercises a mysterious—and a not-so-mysterious—influence on these ill-assorted scholars. Could the men be involved in research less legitimate than Dante’s own poetic and theological pursuits? Plagued by migraines, pedantry and a decidedly judgmental approach to his fellow citizens, along with personal financial and political problems, Dante uncovers a world operating literally and figuratively underneath the Florence he thought he knew.
Readers will be either charmed or irritated by debut novelist Leoni’s characterization of the poet as a cranky, sometimes obtuse genius. The mystery itself is a bit too abstract to be compelling.